African Cats is a nature documentary that makes something that must have been incredibly difficult look easy. The latest picture from Disneynature, this excellent family movie tells a two-pronged story of a lioness and a mother cheetah caring for their young, despite the threat of fang and claw from other predators on the savanna in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve. And it does so with astonishingly beautiful and crystal-clear cinematography, taking you so deeply into the animals' world, it quickly becomes your own.
The co-directors are the estimable Alastair Fothergill, of the BBC's Planet Earth and Blue Planet (two of the best nature documentaries ever) and Keith Scholey, who also co-wrote and co-produced. They and their crack crew followed the pride of lions and the single cheetah mother and her five cubs, over a period of two and a half years, catching in the process both the beauty of their surroundings and the daily danger and drama of their existence.
Co-writers Scholey and Truby help their audience (especially the children) by giving names to the recurring animals we're watching: Layla for the River Pride's oldest, bravest mother lioness, Mara for her cub/daughter, Fang for the pride's lion leader, Kali for Fang's younger, tougher rival, and Sita for the cheetah mother, one of the fastest animals afoot. The filmmakers shape the events into an archetypal story, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson with the smiling wide-eyed wonder of a daddy telling a tale to his delighted kids.
The result is a jungle yarn that's exciting, amusing, and, at times, deeply emotional - especially in the sections that show the once-great huntress Layla, determinedly caring for Mara despite painful leg injuries and gradually failing health and powers. One of the most moving scenes in any recent movie is the sight of Layla, whose hurt leg has already made it hard for her to keep up with the pride, attacking the marauding Kali and his sons after her broken-toothed, battle-shy husband Fang fails as a protector. Another is our last view of this splendid mother, after she passes Mara on to another lioness, going off quietly to die alone.
Sita the cheetah is a great mom as well: leaving her cubs every day to hunt for the family, driving off the threat of Kali, dangerous hyenas and other cheetahs.